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Contrary to what you might believe, being “big” isn’t easy… especially from a marketing perspective. In a recent piece of research undertaken among senior executives at global organisations, we found a number of key areas in which these brands felt they came up wanting compared to smaller more nimble challenger brands.

The research targeted a range of industries including, oil and fuels, soft drinks, healthcare, agriculture and financial services, and covered the following markets:  Australia; UK; France; USA; Africa; and Singapore. What we uncovered was that regardless of industry or market there are three common complaints that appear to be undermining the business agenda.

1.  Introspection

Being focused on optimising the current portfolio and operating model prevents organisations from recognising emerging trends and responding to market/competitive challenges.

2. A lack of appetite for risk or uncertainty

Short-term financial targets, executive competitiveness and fear of failing are probably the greatest deterrents of innovation, brand building and decision making.

3. Excessive socialisation and consultation

The business of doing business is a serious distraction with most respondents claiming too little time to do quality thinking. Over 70% of executives claimed to spend more than 70% of their time on internal business.

With these forces at play, the opportunity to learn how to think small could be the answer. To demonstrate how large organisations can do this, we’ve taken the four areas most commonly cited that these issues affect and outlined the “small” approach they can learn to set them on the right path.

1.  Defending against or responding to competitive threats

Big Challenge: Despite being big it seems that more often smaller players are able to  take some easy advantages. This is unsurprising when it appears that few employees of big companies venture beyond their desks. One respondent told us: “…(we) don’t visit the market, we don’t even look at competitive websites”.  Another told us: “As soon as the competition heats up we fire up the PowerPoint”.

Throughout our research it became clear that for many, emerging trends and/or competitive threats represent uncertainty and are an unwelcome disruption. The root of this issue comes from the insane focus on short-term results to deliver good news to stakeholders (not necessarily shareholders). Large organisations become obsessed with optimising today, which breeds an almost overwhelming resistance to change.

Thinking small: Paridoxically, this is where small companies excel because they think big. They look beyond their desks and get out into the market. When an opportunity arises they think of it as a way to make themselves bigger or less weak and create a burning platform that inspires action. Small companies will go out of their way to resource potential business because they want to.

2. Building and nurturing new brands

Big Challenge: In this instance, both commercial and career uncertainty undermines the innovation agenda. One respondent highlighted how conflicted this can become, stating: “…we want new, bold and innovative ideas but only those that are predictable in how they will work and the return they give.” The respondent later added: “If they (the organisation) don’t see overnight success, it’s branded a failure”.

However, a more sinister challenge to innovation is the two to three-year tenures common among marketers. Our respondents told us that they don’t want to devote time to something that they won’t see the benefits of. Some marketers know they will be in different jobs in three years, so see little point in devoting time to projects that won’t come to fruition for several years.

Thinking Small: Brand owners need to understand the priority and value of innovation and find appropriate reward structures to build corporate (and career) courage in this area. Extending the launch plan to three to five years (rather than 12 months) would enable a new product or brand to to embed its roots properly and build a loyal base of brand advocates.

3. Executing the brand strategy

Big Challenge: A common complaint among the marketing community is how the brand strategy means little to customer-facing teams. “We are quick to resort to deals and do not leverage the strength of our brands,” stated one respondent. This is not surprising if, as a second respondent claimed, the “notion of the brand and customer value proposition are largely alien outside of marketing”.

However, before jumping on the “it’s-all-sales’-fault” band-wagon, it is important to realise that not even the biggest brands are immune to threats from retailers warning of de-listing unless certain discounts or volumes are achieved.  A powerful retailer can, with one well-placed phone call alter an entire brand strategy.

Thinking small:  Small companies think of strategy and execution as two halves of the same coin, and understand that strategy that can’t be executed is immediately wrong. Basing strategy on consumer insights is not enough if the operating model can’t cope with it. Large organisations need to stretch the notion of brand strategy beyond the marketing department and consumer and develop strategic plans across the full route to market – from factory, sales, customer and consumer.

4. The business of doing business

Big Challenge: Anyone who has worked at a large organisation will understand the sheer level of internal stakeholder management that is required. Getting “everyone on the same page” can seem like a full-time job. Often the greatest share of voice comes from internal stakeholders, with external (paying) stakeholders coming a poor second.

Thinking Small: Before even starting to plan, large organisations can benefit greatly from aligning stakeholders by co-creating a universally understood and agreed ambition. They should then ask stakeholders to identify all the challenges (real or perceived) to that ambition, and plan only those activities that overcome them. This way the organisation can move forward as one.

For the giants of industry and commerce, responding to these challenges is about adpating the way they think. Learning to think in the same way as smaller organisations will give them the ability and motivation to look outward, make speedy decisions and deliver great strategy. Ultimately, this will deliver the required results for both internal and external stakeholders.

Think small and be mighty.